Brian and Eileen Keelan

580 Burnside Bend

Boulder Creek, CA   95006

Phone: 831-338-7270

Cell (Brian): 831-331-1507

Cell (Eileen): 585-944-4810


9 December 2006

Dear Friends and Family,

This has been quite a year for us, with major self-inflicted changes to our lives. In early January, we decided that I should begin seriously looking for a new position. Although the first 15 years of my career at Kodak were excellent, because of changes to the company in general and Research in particular, over the last five years my job satisfaction had plummeted, and there was no reprieve in sight. In addition, we had saturated on the available natural history field work and other outdoor recreational activities in the northeast, having visited most locations of interest within a 13-hour drive multiple times. It seemed time for a new job in an entirely new part of the country.

According to one placement firm in Rochester, the median time for an experienced Ph. D. scientist from Kodak to find a new job is on the order of 9 months, which is about the same amount of time it took to be recruited fresh from graduate school at Caltech. So our initial expectation was that we might essentially have to sacrifice a year of our lives to accomplish our goal, but that it should be worthwhile in terms of the improvement of quality of life for the next ten years or so until I reach retirement age. The “sacrifice of a year” has turned out to be quite an accurate description of what we have been through, but we have nearly reached a point where we should be able relax and start enjoying our new living situation, and we are optimistic that it will prove to have been worth the effort.

I started by updating my resume, and sending it to colleagues, posting it on the web, and having it e-mailed through a service to hundreds of recruiting firms. I ran powerful on-line search engines to look for interesting job descriptions, but only pursued those in geographical areas of serious interest to us. Given our desire to live somewhere entirely new, with interesting field work and extensive public lands, I focused on areas west of the Rockies or in the southeast U.S. It turned out that nearly all potentially suitable positions in the southeast were defense-related, and for someone at my experience level, high government security clearance was expected. As I don’t have such clearance, no good leads ever arose for this geographical area. West of the Rockies, the bulk of the potential positions were near Seattle, in the Bay Area (especially Silicon Valley), or in southern California. As we were trying to avoid living directly in a huge metropolitan area, this presented challenges.

Ultimately, I interviewed with three companies. The first trip was to Sharp Laboratories in Washington state, just across the border from Portland, Oregon. The research there was on advanced algorithms for high-quality image display. The second trip was to Hewlett-Packard Labs in Boise, Idaho, where there was a position working on multi-function office peripherals, such as combination photocopier-scanner-fax machines. Both of these trips were arranged with considerable help from former Kodak employees I knew, whose support was greatly appreciated. The third interview trip came about quite differently. I received a call from a recruiter with Micron Technologies, a company aggressively hiring people to work in its rapidly growing imaging business, currently concentrated on cell phone cameras. They saw my resume on-line, and recognized my name from the Handbook of Image Quality I wrote, which they used and liked. Rather than my interviewing for an existing opening, they would create a position especially for me in the Advanced Research and Development area..

This opportunity was, of course, very enticing, but their primary research facility was located in San Jose, at the southeastern end of Silicon Valley, and the edge of the metropolitan Bay Area. I had been regarding this area as too expensive (the median housing price is $850,000, for example) and too urbanized, but the opportunity with Micron made me investigate the situation more carefully. By working with several realtors on the interview trip to learn about housing possibilities; investigating historical patterns of property appreciation and living expenses; and consulting with a certified public accountant and mortgage broker to understand tax implications, I built a fairly accurate mathematical model of the finances involved. The biggest change would be in relocating from an area with very low-cost housing, but also very low appreciation (our house gained less than 1% per year in 16 years) to the area with the country’s highest housing prices, but very high historical appreciation (which then can become an important source of income in retirement if the property is sold). Based on the criteria of maintaining the same standard of living and retiring at the same age as expected from Kodak, and making a conservative assumption regarding housing appreciation, I computed the salary I would need given the price we expected to pay for a house. It turned out that this would require a large increase in salary over what I was earning at Kodak. I shared this information with the recruiter in informal discussions, and when Micron’s offer came through in mid-July, I was able to accept it on the spot.

In the mean time, Eileen and I had been getting the house ready to put on the market. We called the realtor who sold us our house 16 years before and she did a walk-through and offered advice. We sorted through everything we owned, donating, giving away, and discarding many items to simplify a potential move. We transferred quite a bit of furniture to the basement to unclutter the house. We took down all our mounted pictures, of which there were over 150, and had the interior of the house completely repainted. Finally, all the carpeting and flooring were replaced, which made a remarkable difference. When we saw how great the house looked, we wished we had done these things years ago!

I gave notice at Kodak, and concentrated on activities I thought would do the most to insure that the project I was leading would continue to a successful conclusion, which it eventually did at the end of the third quarter, under the direction of my friend and colleague Karin. It was very difficult saying goodbye to the many friends we made in Rochester, and Eileen and I had wonderful send-off parties at Kodak and The Nature Conservancy, respectively. I finished work Aug. 4 and the movers arrived on Aug. 9. Our two cars were transported by a carrier, and we drove the camper across the country ourselves, passing through the Philadelphia area to see my mother and sister and her family. We covered 3000 miles in 4 days, so there was not much time for sight-seeing, but we did enjoy the scenery from Nebraska west, and even saw a new mammal, Wyoming ground squirrel, at a high elevation rest stop along Route 80.

Micron covered two months of temporary housing in San Jose and storage of our belongings. This, coupled with our upcoming month-long trip to Kenya in November, scheduled over two years earlier, gave us very strong motivation to find and move into a house as soon as possible. The temporary housing complex was quite nice; Eileen took advantage of the pleasant gardens for reading, and we both used the exercise facilities. It was well located for reaching Micron (20 minutes away) and looking for houses.

We arrived late on Aug. 14 and I started work on Aug. 28, so we had almost two weeks to work full-time on house-hunting. We were really primed for this, having gone out with realtors for a day in Washington state, two days in Boise, and two days in the Bay Area (Eileen went with me on each of the interview trips for this purpose). We were extremely fortunate in getting connected with excellent realtors in each of these locations. Micron put us in touch with Terry and Robert, who showed us housing and explained the market in the San Jose area. From a careful web search, we contacted MC (short for Marycatherine), who specializes in mountain properties, primarily in adjacent Santa Cruz County. We worked with these three realtors both on the interview trip, and after moving out to San Jose. Their support, advice, and friendship were greatly appreciated, and their positive impact on our lives was enormous.

San Jose is at the southern edge of the highly metropolitan and very expensive Bay Area.. In our price range, the most promising areas were in the valley southeast of San Jose (especially Morgan Hill and Gilroy), and the mountains southwest of San Jose (particularly Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond, and Felton). In the valley, there were nice suburban homes on small lots (up to one-quarter acre) in comfortable communities. Commutes ranged from 30–40 minutes one-way on good roads, but it could take much longer during rush hours. However, my supervisor allows flexible hours and telecommuting, so I planned on shifting my schedule a few hours early to miss rush hour, and telecommuting a day a week for a break. Still, this was twice as long as any commute I had ever had before, and was a source of real concern. Nonetheless, Eileen and I felt that we could move into a house in the valley area easily; in many regards, it would be very similar to our living situation in Rochester.

In contrast, mountain properties were often larger, houses almost always smaller, prices a little lower, and commutes generally longer (40–50 minutes, some on winding mountain roads). Most houses had septic systems and were in areas with some fire, earthquake, and/or mudslide potential. A few had wells or homeowner association water. Many were older houses with unusual designs, constructed in several stages, of varying quality, some work done without county permits, and with code violations. The communities were mostly small (a few thousand people) and services limited. We were very attracted to the mountains, but it was a difficult process to commit to this remoter area. As I wrote in an e-mail at the time, “We had a tough choice between financially secure suburbia in the valley, with its familiar lifestyle, but small, boxed-in yards with no trace of native vegetation; versus more risky, idiosyncratic, and charming homes in the mountains, with redwoods, tougher drives, and a very rural feel.” We spent a lot of time thinking about this ourselves and talking with MC, Terry, and Robert to understand all the pros and cons of the valley and mountains. After looking at 40 houses in one week, about equally split between valley and mountain properties, we finally decided to make an offer on a mountain home.

This house was in a homeowners’ association called Bracken Brae, consisting of 25 houses in a beautiful natural setting, with about 60 acres of communal property, hiking trails, and a creek with swimming holes. We talked to several residents and all liked living there very much and seemed very nice. Once the offer was accepted, we went into the inspection period, anticipating some work would be needed to fix it up, as it had not been well-maintained and was about 75 years old. But within a week we had estimates of over $50,000 of investment needed to render it reasonably habitable. This was more than we were willing to undertake, especially as the starting price was hardly a bargain. But fortunately, MC had been keeping an eye on other properties in case something like this happened, and another house became available in the same homeowners’ association during that week, thanks to a failed escrow. This was great luck for us, as turnover was so low in the community that two houses had not been for sale at once in over ten years.

This second house was only 21 years old, in much better condition, still of reasonable size, and much lower-priced. The house design was not as appealing, being a rather vertical structure (3 floors) and boxy in appearance. However, the view from the house was stunning, a southwest panorama of Ben Lomond Mt., a virtually undeveloped, nearly 2000-foot high ridge. The property had no lawn, but rather native vegetation and sandstone bedrock coming right to the house, with plants including redwoods, tanbark oaks, knobcone pines, Douglas-fir, madrone. manzanita, scrub oaks, and chamise. It was the last house at the end of the street, and had a large lot (0.9 acres) bordered by association property, so it is very quiet and extremely private. The property and setting were exactly the type of thing we had been dreaming of since first considering a move, and we felt the house was acceptable, especially as there would be some money left to improve it. We put in an offer immediately, and though it had only been on the market a few days, ours was the second offer. Fortunately, our offer was not contingent and so prevailed, putting us into a second escrow. Inspections went much better this time, with no major surprises, although we did find less of the structure covered by county permits than hoped.

We closed on the house on Sept. 27, and had some remedial work done on the workshop before our belongings were delivered out of storage on Oct. 6. In between, we moved the few things we brought with us out of our temporary housing, and set up the camper on our property, living in it for about a week. We took some of this time to clean up the property and remove the one noxious invasive plant present, French broom. This shrub, which can exceed heights of 10 feet and grows in dense stands, took something like 40 man-hours of work to remove, and generated two dump-truck loads of yard waste. But the property looked super when we were done, and we enjoyed being outside in the beautiful weather, which was essentially perfect from our first arrival in California until we left for Kenya.

The delivery of our stuff from storage went well. Our neighbors said when they moved in, everything had to be unpacked and brought up by pickup truck to squeeze between two huge redwoods that define the narrowest point on our road. I advised the moving company of this and they brought two flatbed trucks, one quite small. They said the larger one (called a bobtail) made it through the redwoods with less than two inches to spare on each side, and had to be aligned perfectly before it would fit through! They did a great job for us, and were pleased to leave with a nice freestanding basketball backboard left by the previous owner, plus our mulching lawn mower, for which we had no more need. We managed to unpack most of the boxes before leaving for Kenya. Because the new house is almost all windows, there is little wall space to hang all our photographs, and the lighting is not conducive, so they are all still packed and we will have to think of what to do with them.

During this time we accepted a contingent offer on our house in Rochester, then bumped it with a non-contingent offer that closed just a couple of days before we left for Kenya. The housing market in Rochester was dead while we were trying to sell, and we eventually took about 6% less than our first asking price, which was still above our minimum desired price and seemed quite good under the circumstances. The financing of all this was interesting; we needed only 5% down payment on our new house, which was enough to secure a 15% home equity line of credit on the new home, which in turn brought us up to 20%, enough to get an 80% primary mortgage without private mortgage insurance. Most remarkably, we could have used our $50,000 home equity line of credit in Rochester to make the down payment in California, so actually we could have bought up to a one million dollar house using three loans without spending any money out of pocket! But with Rochester closing, we’re back down to just one primary, fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage.

The job at Micron has been going well during the two months I have been working there. Micron was a very successful semiconductor company specializing in memory. About six years ago, it acquired Photobits, a spin-off from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Photobits had good laboratory technology for making CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) sensors, which had the potential to replace CCD (charge coupled device) sensors in many applications. Micron was able to transfer successfully the Photobits technology into their manufacturing capability (primarily in Boise, Idaho), and now they are the world’s leading supplier of sensors for mobile imaging (cell phone cameras), quite a success story. Recognizing that there should be many future opportunities in automotive, security, and other markets, Micron is now stepping up their imaging research and development efforts through aggressive hiring. For example, the division I am in increased from 20 to 80 people in 2006! Compared to Kodak, Micron is smaller; much more focused; financially healthy; growing; and more demographically diverse. Technical people have few meetings, and most research projects are pursued by just one or two people; research teams are uncommon and small. Most employees are young, but have already worked for several companies (often start-ups).

My supervisor has been very supportive in offering advice on getting settled in, understanding all the interruptions while we were buying the house, allowing me flexibility of schedule, and letting me take time to learn about Micron to try to find areas where I could contribute, rather than immediately assigning me to a project with a tight deadline. He also approved permission for me to take a leave of absence for the Kenya trip, as part of my hiring agreement, for which Eileen and I were very grateful. I have consulted on a small number of image quality topics, and constructed quality rulers using existing Micron images, which has given me a chance to apply myself the ISO standard I wrote. In the process of doing this, I’ve gotten a chance to learn more Matlab, a very useful (and fun) software package. I will eventually be developing image processing algorithms using this and a second programming language, C++. I have also worked on developing very computationally efficient, yet flexible tone scale implementations, which has been interesting. Finally, I have done some work on designing processes that should be useful in research portfolio and innovation management.

I seem to be surviving the 50 minute-commute, which entails about 30 minutes on twisty mountain roads (Eileen counted 156 curves in one 12-mile stretch) and then 20 minutes on interstate and city streets. Even with one day of telecommuting per week, it represents an extra  4 hours of driving per week compared to Rochester. At least it is a scenic route in the mountains, with some possibility of animals (I’ve already had one good bobcat sighting), and there is little traffic going in at 5:45 or coming home at 3:00. I had to trade cars  with Eileen because the van could not handle the mountain roads due to transmission limitations. Both the van and the Subaru are on their last legs, the former because of rust and the latter from age (13 years). But both passed their smog tests, and I just hope each lasts another year or two to give as a breather before we have more large expenses.

Other than our trip to Kenya in November, we did relatively little field work this year, as the activities described above consumed most of our time. We did take a nice four-day trip to Algonquin in March, the highlight of which was seeing and photographing a beautiful pine marten at one of the visitor center feeders. It was also an excellent winter for pine grosbeaks, which was a real treat; Eileen finally got to see adult males in prime plumage, which is an intense and beautiful pink color. When we visited Washington state in April, we had one day free to visit Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, where cackling geese (recently split off as a separate species from the larger Canada goose) were common and easily seen and heard well. There were also a few spring wildflowers already in bloom there, including western bleeding heart, western trillium, salmonberry, and sweet coltsfoot.

We took a two-week trip to Arizona in May, the first half of which was another rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, on which we served as guest naturalists. Some of the highlights of this trip were gray fox, Woodhouse’s toad, western kingsnake, Grand Canyon rattlesnake, a perched peregrine falcon on a close rock wall near eye level, a pair of calling roadrunners up a cliff, great looks at a Myotis bat in daylight, and an avocet in a shallow spot in the river. We also took a day trip through Red Rock Canyon just west of Las Vegas, which was very pretty and had about ten species of wildflower in bloom, including Palmer’s penstemon, a favorite for its beautiful fragrance. We spent the remaining 5 days camping at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which we had not visited for many years. During our stay, we hiked about 40 miles on 11 different trails (short Cliff Springs Trail being especially fun), identifying over 70 species of plants, of which purple-flowered lousewort, cave-dwelling primrose, yellow ivesia, pointleaf manzanita, Utah serviceberry, Nelson’s larkspur, scarlet gilia, and white-margined pussytoes were highlights. We saw the distinctive Kaibab subspecies of the tassel-eared squirrel half a dozen times, quite a relief as I had not seen it really well on any of my three previous trips to the area, which is the only place it occurs. We also got a positive identification of Nuttall’s cottontail for only the second time ever. Weidemeyer’s admiral was a striking new butterfly for us, and short-horned lizards were frequent. We encountered scarce Williamson’s sapsucker and three-toed woodpeckers quite a few times, and also saw red crossbills and Great Basin specialties such as plumbeous vireo and Grace’s and Virginia’s warblers.

We expect our greatest loss in departing the Rochester area, excepting moving away from our friends, will be leaving behind the world-class canoeing opportunities. In the three years after getting our Kevlar canoe, Headwind, we paddled a total of 1200 miles, but this year we added only about 70 miles in 4 days back in upstate New York before leaving, and 5 days here in California. Highlights of the New York trips were black maple in Tonawanda Creek (seen once before, in Ohio); green dragon (related to jack-in-the-pulpit) in the Clyde River on our wedding anniversary (seen twice before in Kentucky, and once in New York); and shining ladies-tresses (an orchid) in South Sandy Creek (an entirely new species for us).

In California, we paddled twice at Elkhorn Slough, the premier canoeing destination in the area. This is a 7-mile tidal creek that empties into Monterey Bay, about an hour away from here. You can paddle right up to sea otters, harbor seals, and a tremendous variety of birds in migration; in September we had great looks at red-necked phalaropes, elegant terns, long-billed curlews, marbled godwits, whimbrels, willets, common murre, western and Clark’s grebe, Brandt’s cormorants, brown pelicans, and many other species. This is the best birding we’ve ever done by canoe, although the Everglades are a close second. We also paddled on beautiful Tenaya Lake above 8000 feet elevation in Yosemite National Park, where we spent a 3-day weekend just before I started work, as I has not had a day off in well over two months. Tenaya Lake had mountain hemlock (the first place I saw this conifer, which is my very favorite) and alpine shooting stars. The White Wolf Trail was good for late subalpine wildflowers, including Sierra tiger lily. Our last pre-Kenya day in the field was in late September, when we joined a field trip sponsored by the Monterey Bay Birding Festival, on which we saw snowy plover and huge California torreya trees.

Our trip to Kenya was with Field Guides, a company that is devoted to running birding tours. As we just got back a week ago, but need to get this Christmas letter out early because of our address change, I will only devote a paragraph or two to the trip now. We may do a longer write-up later, and if so, will send it out separately. Kenya is probably the best trip for mammals in the world, and it is one of the best trips for birds also, especially considering that many of the species occur in open country, where they are relatively easy to see well and even photograph. We signed up for, and started saving up for, this very expensive trip over two years ago. The tour leader was Terry Stevenson, one of the world’s top birders, who has lived in Kenya for several decades. The trip is limited to one mini-bus full, so there were only four other participants (with us, Terry, and our driver David, the party totaled eight). Only one of the group had been to Africa birding before so everything was new to most of us. The mini-buses have roofs that pop open so you can stand up and see out, which is important in the national parks with large mammals, where you are not allowed out of your vehicle. In our 26 days of actual touring there, we drove roughly 1800 miles, our course describing something like a spiral outward from Nairobi, first northeast, curling west to the Uganda border, then south, then southeast to the coast, broken up by a flight from Nairobi southwest to Masai Mara, which is at the northern edge of the Serengeti ecosystem. Elevations ranged from sea level to 10,000 feet on Mt. Kenya, and we crossed the equator on land in about 4 places.

The accommodations were fine, the Kenyans extremely friendly, the box lunches awful (butter sandwiches were a staple), other meals good to excellent, the roads fair to awful, the sunsets perfectly ordinary (though they can be spectacular when it is drier and the atmosphere is filled with dust), the weather mostly good (mild to hot temperatures, dry to humid, some rain), but most importantly, the birds and mammals were fantastic! Our group recorded about 655 species of birds. Of these, only about 35 were birds we had seen before. Approximately 22 bird families were new ones for us, such as hornbills and turacos; seeing the first bird in a new family is especially exciting because it is likely to be rather unlike anything you’ve seen before. The mammal list was about 65 species, a good total for that trip.

We also had a lovely day of birding in London on a layover day we put in the schedule. Jack Fearnside of Birding London picked us up at Heathrow just after dawn, and took us to several excellent birding areas during the day, fed us as needed, and deposited us in our hotel near the airport at the end of the day. It was an excellent introduction to birding in Europe; we saw 73 species, of which about 40 were new. Some favorites were lapwing, blue tit, European robin, and pied wagtail.

Eileen and I did a lot of photography with the digital camera we bought over a year ago, with very good results. Each night we edited the shots from that day, discarding roughly two-thirds of the images and keeping only the best (we took a total of over 900 images, and discarded about 600 while still in the field). Then, we’d record details of the images kept so that captions could be added to the photos later. At home we did the captioning and another sort, identifying the better 50% of the images, and adjusting these for contrast, density, and color balance as needed, and cropping them if desired. These were then uploaded to the Kodak Easyshare Gallery for public viewing (see e-mail for details; if you received this letter as a hardcopy, and would like more info, let us know). In total, sorting, captions, editing, uploading, etc. took roughly 30 man-hours of effort, which is pretty similar to the time it would have taken to sort, label, and organize 35-mm slides from the same trip.

Well, in retrospect it has been quite a year. We put a lot of effort into “reinventing” our lives, and now we just need to take advantage of the opportunity created and enjoy it thoroughly!

Take care,

Brian and Eileen